PORTLAND, Ore. —
It’s pretty rare for a Multnomah County Board of Commissioners meeting to be featured on the front page of the New York Times, but that’s what happened on Monday after a scientist who testified at a commission meeting late last year failed to disclose that she was being paid by a utility to do so.
Julie Goodman, a board certified toxicologist, appeared at the Nov. 10 meeting, to raise questions about the findings and methodology on the potential health impacts of gas stoves.
“Yesterday, I received a presentation entitled ‘Public Health and Gas Stoves: A Review of the Evidence.’ Goodman said at the meeting. “This presentation was missing some important context. It didn’t include any references or discuss how the evidence was reviewed.”
Goodman, who works for a consulting firm called Gradient, cast doubt on the reports’ findings and the recommendation that residents replace gas stoves with electric alternatives, but did not mention that she was paid to appear at the meeting by NW Natural, the state’s largest gas utility.
Now, Oregon Representative Khanh Pham is calling for increased oversight of the utility, who she accused of trying to raise doubts about what she called “settled science.”
“I think this is totally unacceptable behavior from a utility like NW Natural,” Pham said. “Northwest Natural seems to be pulling right from Big Tobacco's playbook right down to hiring the exact same doctors they use to cast doubt on what is settled science around gas stove health impacts, which dates back decades.”
Goodman, while working for Gradient, has defended several companies and industry groups against accusations that their products are harmful. Among them: tobacco companies, plastics manufacturers and fossil fuel lobbying groups.
Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, who was present at the meeting, said she quickly Googled Gradient and deduced that Goodman was likely there on behalf of the utility.
“I think it's always good context to know how someone who's providing evidence or testimony is connected to the issue that they're testifying about,” Jayapal said. “And I think it's particularly important to know if the person is being paid to provide the testimony. “
Jayapal said she listened to the points Goodman raised in her testimony and discussed them with public health officials, but that Goodman's affiliation with Gradient did change how Jayapal viewed what she said.
“Knowing not only that she was being paid to provide that testimony, but also that her firm has a very specific track record of testifying on behalf of industry and against findings that chemicals cause harm to human health, that certainly weighs in my evaluation of her testimony.”
Goodman declined to be interviewed, but in a statement, she said her failure to disclose she was being paid by the utility was a simple oversight.
“I never intended to keep the information about the funding source private and provided information about the funder in written information I provided to the Multnomah County Health Department following my testimony,” Goodman said.
“My routine practice is to disclose funders in papers, comments and testimony. Neglecting to state the funders at the beginning of my testimony to the Multnomah County Health Department was an oversight,” she added.
Pham was skeptical of those claims.
“I find it surprising that somebody with that much experience, whose professional role is to do this testimony, would fail to disclose,” Pham said.
David Roy, a spokesman for NW Natural, said the utility never misrepresented Goodman’s role at the meeting.
“NW Natural delivers energy. We don’t pretend to be scientists, so we hired an international firm, Gradient, to review the uncited presentation,” he said in a statement. “We called the county to request Dr. Goodman be allowed to speak – fully disclosing she was a consultant.”
Pham has already sponsored legislation, House Bill 2713, that would grant cities and counties the constitutional authority to “prohibit or limit use of fossil fuels in new buildings,” but she said the incident at the November meeting signaled that lawmakers should take a closer look at utilities.
“It affirms the need for transparency, accountability and the need for oversight,” Pham said. “We need to make sure that these entities, which we are entrusting with a great deal of power and privilege, are using it to serve the community’s best interest.”